SSI x Edges of Earth – Shellfish Reef Diving in Hong Kong

From some of the best food we have ever had in our lives, to riding the escalators through the famed Mid-Levels neighborhood and the persistent nightlife, Hong Kong truly has it all. Its blend of culture and history makes the city a welcoming place for newcomers such as our expedition team. But our visit to go diving in Hong Kong was not an ordinary one; we were heading to this epicenter to learn about what sits beneath Hong Kong’s surface.

Discovering Hong Kong’s beautiful green spaces.

We had no idea that nearly 40% of Hong Kong’s land is dedicated to country parks and nature reserves. Its hiking trails and uncharted bush bring out unexpected wildlife, and all so close to the city center. Its 280 miles of diverse coastline provide an array of beaches, dive sites, and hidden marine life that many do not even know about, with some areas like Lantau Island considered somewhat unexplored. 

The Sai Kung area on the eastern side of Hong Kong is considered one of the prime diving spots in a place not that internationally well-known for the sport. It is typically shallow, with relatively good visibility and clear water (in comparison to Hong Kong’s western waters.)

Meanwhile, not much diving happens on the western side of Hong Kong due to the influence of the Pearl River. The conditions are almost always murky, silty, and riddled with ghost nets. To make matters worse, there is heavy boat traffic and strong currents deterring divers from taking the plunge. 

Exploring murky waters - Shellfish reef diving in Hong Kong.

When it comes to the best time to go diving in Hong Kong, it is said that the visibility is at its peak during the winter months, when algae is not in bloom. But regardless of season, the water will almost always look green, especially on the west side. For most divers, this is a hard pass. But not for us.

As the seasons were changing from summer to fall, we headed to the west to explore the green, mucky, churning water, with insane boat traffic overhead. We were in search of the last remnants of native shellfish reefs alongside The Explorers Club Hong Kong ChapterThe Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Swire Institute of Marine Sciences (SWIMS) of the University of Hong Kong. None of us ever thought we would be this excited to dive in such wild conditions, but here we were, living out the mantra of "edges of earth" to the fullest. 

Established in 1904 and based in New York City, The Explorers Club is a network with chapters spread across the globe. For more than a hundred years, it has stood as a pillar of support for scientific explorations across various fields, fostering a spirit of camaraderie and collective endeavor among its members. Being recently inducted into the Hong Kong Chapter, our team was excited to embark on our first expedition together. 

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Adam Janikowski, an ocean explorer with close to 20 years of experience traversing the world, was leading the project we would be supporting alongside TNC and SWIMS, trying to manage our expectations from the get-go. 

Seeing how excited we were about diving even the murkiest waters; he could not help but laugh at our enthusiasm. 

Yet, he too shared the same sentiment, recounting tales in great detail of the worst and best diving he has done around Hong Kong. And all with a purpose—from fish identification to reef surveys—as he prefers dives with an end goal that accomplish something. 

"Hong Kong clearly does not compare to other parts of Asia when it comes to diving. With lots of overfishing and silt from the Pearl River Delta, you are not getting the best conditions. But that means you need to look closer when you dive. And when you do, you see things many never will," explained Adam.

Restoring Hong Kong’s shellfish reefs.

He went one step further to share that shellfish reefs once flourished here, forming marine biodiversity that we could not even imagine off these very shores. Hence why he was heading up the survey work with TNC and SWIMS, as this diving certainly served a critical purpose. 

These shellfish reefs, vital to ocean health, serve as natural water filters, stabilizers for sediments and protective nurseries for juvenile fish and other marine creatures. 

The sheer abundance of shellfish once played a pivotal role in Hong Kong’s underwater ecosystem, fostering a complex habitat rich with life. However, human impact and environmental changes have significantly reduced their presence. 

Today, efforts are being made to restore these crucial ecosystems, recognizing their role not only in marine biodiversity but also in coastal resilience. 

For The Explorers Club, TNC and SWIMS, the restoration of shellfish reefs is more than an environmental imperative, it is a step towards revitalizing the ocean ecosystems around a city that is home to almost 7.5 million people.

READ MORE: Overfishing – 10 Essential Facts and How You Can Help.

It is also about shifting perspective—reshaping the narrative around shellfish from an underappreciated group of marine animals, to one of the most critical to our survival.

Protecting the ecological heart of estuaries.

Diving at shellfish reefs offers a unique experience, distinctly different from clear-water diving. Oysters, thriving in estuarine environments where fresh and saltwater mix, create these diverse habitats. These conditions, characterized by brackish waters, make shellfish reefs the ecological heart of estuaries. Unlike corals that dominate the clearer, saline ocean waters, shellfish do not require light. 

This preference for dimmer environments allows them to flourish in estuaries, which serve as their ecological niche. In contrast, as you move into more oceanic territories, such as the eastern side of Hong Kong or when diving in Australia, corals become prevalent.

RELATED: SSI x Edges of Earth - Great Barrier Reef Foundation Brings Hope for World’s Reefs.

As Adam talked about the value of shellfish, we could not help but look back to when we first started our diving journeys. In the early days, we were often seeking out charismatic species such as whale sharksmanta rays and dolphins. We were eager to see these creatures in the wild given their size, scale, presence and personalities. It is exciting and fun! 

However, with time and more dives logged, we find ourselves looking for new adventures, with an appetite to see the lesser-known, yet equally fascinating forms of life. Our collective curiosity at the table extended well beyond the usual, especially given each of us has a deep desire to go on dives that have a definitive end goal. 

While none of us hold formal scientific training, the collaboration with TNC demonstrated there is a place for divers in supporting vital marine research regardless. 

We were ready to go diving in Hong Kong. Yet, there was one thing standing firmly in our way.

Diving after a catastrophic Black Rainstorm.

The city was enduring a "black" rainstorm, the most severe kind of rainstorm as classified on their weather advisory system. With over 100 mm of rain saturating the city within two hours or less, this became a record-breaking downpour, the likes of which have not been seen in 140 years of Hong Kong’s recorded history. Just our luck!

Such intense rainfall led to significant disruptions, including flooding, landslides and widespread damage to infrastructure. Unfortunately, this meant some of our dives were canceled, and we were mentally preparing for what that would mean when we finally did get in the water. 

If the visibility was bad on a good day, then this was going to be horrific. Adam said we would be lucky if we could even see our hands in front of our faces, given the circumstances. 

As we waited for the relentless rain to subside, we delved into the captivating maritime history of Hong Kong. The tales ranged from the daring exploits of famed Chinese pirates to the rich myths of the indigenous Lo Ting people. Each story was a thread in the vibrant tapestry of the region’s past, hinting at the depth of heritage that lay as much in the hearts of its people as in the depths of its waters. 

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It became increasingly clear that, to truly appreciate the breadth of Hong Kong’s historical and cultural wealth, a return visit would be essential. We had merely scratched the surface of this city’s storied relationship with the sea.

Diving into darkness at Lantau Island.

After a week of non-stop torrential rain, we were finally getting our chance to go diving in Hong Kong. Boarding a sturdy research vessel, our destination was Lantau Island, once said to be inhabited by the mythical Lo Ting we had learned so much about the week prior. 

Our mission was to explore the waters around several islands, starting with the notorious pirate haven of Cheung Chau. Steeped in legend, this island’s cavernous hideaways were once the refuge of infamous seafarers. Because of the once bustling shellfish habitat, this island promised a glimpse into Hong Kong’s ecological past.

The journey to the islands was an adventure in itself, marked by the churning, unruly sea and the persistent shadow of dark clouds above. The inclement weather, though daunting, had a silver lining—it had thinned out the usual flurry of boat traffic. Regardless of the conditions, everyone was happy to be here, as any day of diving in Hong Kong is a good day. 

The visibility, or lack thereof, set a record for the poorest conditions the team had ever encountered. 

This near blindness underwater resulted in us holding on to each other to maintain contact in the murky depths.

All of us had moments of total disorientation, not knowing up from down or left from right.

Even though it was some of the weirdest diving we had done, it was so invigorating, as it was certainly a new challenge for our team. 

RELATED: SSI x Edges of Earth – Welcome to Blackwater Diving.

What seemed like ordinary rocks to an observer were, to this team, treasures of the shallows. Each buddy pair, armed with a chisel, carefully selected specimens from around 3-5 meters (9-15 feet) that could contribute to shellfish reef restoration. Every ascent was a victory, affirming the presence of some semblance of reef and the potential for their recovery.

The collected samples were more than just artifacts; they were evidence backing up the research team’s theories. We could not help but wonder that if shellfish reefs were restored here, maybe one day the West would be just as regarded as the East when it comes to diving in Hong Kong!

Diving serves as a powerful lens, bringing into focus species that are often overlooked despite their vital roles in ocean health. The more we dive, the more we learn. Our first-ever dives to find shellfish reefs highlighted the delicate balance of marine ecosystems and helped us understand what is left that can be restored. 

Learn more about the oceans and how to protect them: Become an SSI Ecology Specialty diver.

Our time diving in Hong Kong became a testament to the power of shared experiences in unfamiliar territories. The challenging conditions quickly bonded us with the local conservationists, creating lasting friendships in the muck. 

As Adam once said, "Like anything in life, you get out what you put in when it comes to diving in Hong Kong, including friendships, experiences and discoveries."

It was here that we began to appreciate the true essence of the "edges of earth"—not just as a physical frontier but as a mindset. One that embraces the unknown, pushes the boundaries of revelation and fosters meaningful connections with like-minded explorers eager to share their unique corners of the world. 

Here, our dives were more than exploratory, they were transformative, broadening our understanding of both the natural world and our place in it. Diving is a journey that often leads us into the unknown, revealing the vast expanse of our ignorance about the very planet we inhabit. It is an endeavor that can awaken a deep-seated curiosity and connection to what is all around us. That is exactly what happened when we went diving in Hong Kong. 

Next time you are deciding on a dive destination, why not venture to the road less traveled or even explore your backyard? You might be surprised by the hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, allowing you to contribute in ways you never expected. 


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYoutube and their website